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Ted Williams dies at 83

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Friday, July 5, 2002
Williams is the greatest hitter of any time
By Tim Kurkjian
Special to

What a title ... Greatest Hitter of All Time. It is more of a distinction than World's Fastest Human or Heavyweight Champion of the World because those designations are temporary. This one covers 150 years; it covers Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Rogers Hornsby. Hitting a baseball is indeed the hardest skill in sports, a skill that, unlike those in other major sports, is largely unchanged from the early 1900's. No one was ever better at hitting a baseball than Ted Williams. If he were playing today, he would be the best hitter today.

Ted Williams
Ted Williams won six batting titles and four home run crowns.
His numbers are staggering. His career on-base percentage was .483; the great DiMaggio's was. 398. He had the highest slugging percentage in the 1940's and the 1950's; no player has ever led in that category for consecutive decades.

Slugging and on-base average are the truest markers of offensive excellence; Williams led the American League in slugging and on-base percentage in the same season eight times, including six years in a row. He won six batting titles, four home runs crowns, two MVPs and two Triple Crowns. His 1941, '42 and '46 seasons surely are among the 10 best in history. What would his career have been like if he hadn't missed the '43-45 seasons to help defend America in World War II? Or the two years he missed fighting in Korea? He'd have 700 homers and the most RBIs ever.

No one loved to hit more than Williams. He carried a bat to class with him in high school in San Diego. In the big leagues, he would take his bats to the post office to have them weighed: 33 ounces exactly, nothing else would do. He boned his bats constantly, to make the wood harder. He put pine tar on the handle, then wiped it off after the game to prevent rotting. One of his books was called "My Turn At Bat." And he existed for his next turn at bat. Before every season, he would vow to himself, this year, the best EVER.

Yet, he was much more than a hitter. He loved children, perhaps because he was just that, a big kid. He was a tireless supporter of the Jimmy Fund charity in Boston. He was a war hero, he flew fighter jets for the Marines. He was a master fisherman. He had a unique curiosity, a fascination for analysis, he always needed to know how and why things worked, from the grip of the slider to an intricate camera. "You know what I would have done if I hadn"t been a baseball player?" he once told a friend. "I'd have studied the brain." Indeed. He always wanted to know what you were thinking, and why you were thinking it, especially if you were a pitcher.

Mostly, he wanted to be heard. And damn it, you were going to listen. He was arrogant and caustic, he'd snap at you for not having the right answer to his question, or for not being prepared for a meeting with him. He will be remembered for his stormy relationship with the media, some of which he provoked, a bad idea given the competitive, often vicious, nature of the Boston press. He was going to show those writers that they were wrong, and he took that anger to the plate. He was arrogant and self-absorbed, a hardened individualist who basically did whatever the hell he wanted to do. "A spoiled kid," his mentor, Jimmy Foxx, once called him. Williams will be remembered for hitting .200 in his only World Series. He'll be remembered for Aug. 8, 1956 when, as he ran off the field to the boos at Fenway, he spat three times at the crowd -- to his left, to his right, and in front of him.

Some will draw comparisons to another fabulous left fielder, Barry Bonds. It is, at best, a stretch. Bonds has a contentious relationship with the press, but for most of his career, he has had a similar relationship with teammates, including his managers. Williams rarely, if ever, had any problems with teammates (he was often the light of the clubhouse; in later years, he campaigned for Bobby Doerr and Dom DiMaggio to be in the Hall of Fame), or his primary managers, Joe Cronin, Joe McCarthy or Pinky Higgins (when he was manager of the Yankees, McCarthy was strident about his players wearing ties, but when he got to Boston in '48, he loosened that knot out of respect for Williams because he knew Ted disliked ties). Williams never had issues with authority, be it a manager or a commanding officer.

Bonds has been a bust in the postseason: In 97 postseason at-bats, he has 19 hits (.196) with one homer and six RBI. That's a far greater sample than Williams' performance in the '46 Series against the Cardinals when he went 5-for-25, all singles. Williams never used it as an excuse that he played that Series with an injured elbow that hampered his swing. Williams was blamed for that World Series loss. When it was over, he sat and cried.

Some believe that Bonds was denied the 1991 MVP award because of his strained relationship with the press. That's not true. Nor is it true, says estimable baseball historian Bill James, that Williams was treated unfairly in MVP races. Williams didn't deserve the MVP in 1957, Mickey Mantle did. In 1947, Williams won the Triple Crown, but lost the MVP by one point to DiMaggio. Williams thought Boston writer Mel Webb left him off the ballot due to a feud between the two. In fact, Webb didn't have a vote that year. But, as James notes, DiMaggio was completely left off THREE ballots. The reason he won is he got eight first-place votes, and Williams got three.

The biggest difference between Williams and Bonds -- or Williams and almost anyone -- is that he was always a dominant hitter (except in 1959 when, at age 41, he hit .254 mainly because of a neck injury. He couldn't retire after a season like that). As a 20-year-old rookie in 1939, Williams batted .327 and drove in a league-leading 145 runs. In 1957, at age 37, he led the AL with a .388 average, and had two, three-homer games. In 1960, his final season, he batted .316 with 29 home runs, including a home run in his final at-bat at Fenway.

He didn't tip his cap to the Boston fans that day because he vowed never to do that again after being bad-mouthed by a small pocket of fans at Fenway earlier in his career. He once wrote, "in a crowd of cheers, I could always pick out the solitary boo." He still should have showed his affection for the fans whom, on the whole, loved him, and he loved. But if nothing else, Williams was stubborn. He never gave in, not to the fans, the writers or the famous shift that Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau designed; he was going to hit the ball through the shift. He was John Wayne, a real man who refused to get misty about a final at-bat, who never made excuses, who never forgave for what he considered unforgivable acts.

And that, besides his brilliance as a hitter, was Williams' greatest asset -- his indomitable spirit. He knew he was the best hitter in the game, he knew on that final day of the '41 season in Philadelphia that he was going to hit .400. It didn't matter that he had struggled the previous three weeks, hitting around .250 to drop his average .39955, which, then, would have been rounded to .400. He could have sat down and become the first .400 hitter since Bill Terry in 1930. He was given that option by Cronin, his manager. Most players, then and especially now, would have taken it, and would have been completely justified. Not Williams. He played, He had four hits in the first game. He could have protected that average. Not Williams. He got two more hits in the second game to finish the season at .406.

That's why he is Ted Williams. That's why he was best hitter 40 years, that's why he'd be the best today and that's why, 40 years from now, he'll still be The Greatest Hitter of All Time.

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